12 February 2014

A Darwin quote for Darwin Day

For Darwin Day, I thought I'd (re)post one of my favorite Darwin quotes. Here it is:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. -- From a letter to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860

The Ichneumonidae is a family of wasps. A very big family. It is, in fact, one of the largest families in the largest class of animals, the insects. There are over 60,000 species of ichneumonid wasps, each one, according to creationists, specially designed by God. My question for them is the same as Charles Darwin's: Why? Why would a beneficent and omnipotent God do such a thing?

To understand the question, it is necessary to know a bit about the ichneumonids. First of all, most are parasitoids, which means that their larvae develop inside the body of a living host, which they slowly eat alive. Eventually, when the wasp larvae pupate, they erupt out of the body of the host that they have gradually consumed, tormented, and destroyed as larvae.

It is easy to see how such a thing could exist from an evolutionary standpoint. The body of a caterpillar is good food for larvae. It's not surprising that some organisms have evolved to take advantage of it. But what kind of a God would purposefully design it to be that way?

I have heard five different answers:

  1. God originally made everything good; there was no suffering or death until the fall of Adam. Then all hell broke loose. Animals immediately began to kill and eat each other, and predators, parasites, parasitoids, and pathogens roamed the earth. (Creation Ministries)

  2. God made things nasty right from the start just to show us how important we are to him. He knew that Adam would sin, so he made nature cruel to show us the serious nature of sin. (Dembski's Defective Design Inference)

  3. God made everything good and then Satan messed everything up. (Gregory Boyd's Cosmic Warfare Theodicy)

  4. God likes it just fine the way it is. He created it that way for is own pleasure. He likes to watch things suffer. (David Snoke)

  5. God couldn't help it and had nothing to do with it. He would have liked to create a kind and peaceful world, but he had to let things play out according to the laws of nature, over which he had no control. So the ichneumonid wasps just evolved, along with everything else, over millions of years while God sadly watched from a distance, unable to affect the outcome. (Ken Miller)

For each of these answers, though, I have a question.

  1. How did things change so quickly? Were the 60,000 ichneumonid species specially created by God the moment Adam sinned? Or did God magically turn 60,000 butterfly species into parasitic wasps? Or did they all evolve (super)naturally in a few thousand years?

  2. How do the ichneumonids teach us about sin? Until about the time of Darwin no one (except God) even knew they existed? Yet God created them just for us, just to teach us a lesson?

  3. So Satan created the Ichneumonids? Along with scorpions, spiders, snakes, and sharks? He must have been a busy guy!

  4. How could a kind and loving God create things just to watch them suffer?

  5. A God who can't create or control anything isn't a God at all.

Here are some cool videos about the Ichneumonids.

The first one is from David Attenborough's marvelous "Life in the Undergrowth."

And here's one showing a Ichneumonid wasp (Megarhyssa sp.) drilling through the bark of an oak tree to deposit an egg in the tunnel of the siricid wood wasp, whose larva the Maegarhyssa lava will eat alive from the inside in the traditional Ichneumonid fashion (just like God intended it to be).


FrodoSaves said...

Damn. That second wasp is pretty incredible. How big are these things? And how much do they like people intruding on their private affairs with a video camera?


Steve Wells said...


Yeah, they're pretty cool, aren't they? I've never seen one oviposit before, but it is one of my goals in life. I understand, though, that they are pretty vulnerable at that time and can't just fly away when their ovipositor is stuck a cm or so into tree bark. Here's what Borror and Delong's Study of Insects says about it.

"Retraction of the ovipositor is also relatively slow. It is not uncommon to find what look like thin, black needles protruding from the wood of a dead tree. These are the ovipositors of females that either were unable to free themselves or were eaten by birds while ovipositing."

busterggi said...


If any god would design such creatures it would be the genocidal, psychopathic, torture & human sacrifice loving Judeo-Christian-Islamic god.

Ian said...

The comment about birds eating the wasps got me thinking:

We don't even have to talk about parasitic wasps to doubt that all life was created by a loving, just God. That beautiful cardinal singing outside your window on a spring morning? Yeah, he's going to kill and devour hundreds of living creatures (insects, worms, spiders, etc.) over the course of a life that very easily could end in horrible violence as he is plucked from the sky by a Coopers Hawk.

The fact that animals that we find beautiful and majestic are routinely killing each other just to survive is enough proof against a just, loving God for me.

Steve Wells said...


I agree. The god of the Bible and the god of nature are both cruel and sadistic. Thank goodness there's no evidence for the existence of either of them.


You're absolutely right. Nature is from top to bottom red in tooth and claw. No one but a sadist would have designed it to be that way.

Michael Ejercito said...

How could a kind and loving God create things just to watch them suffer?
He is God; He felt like it.

Steve Wells said...

He's God; He felt like it.

So God just felt like creating things just so he could watch them suffer? And you worship this God?

Xolotl-Tzin said...

So God just felt like creating things just so he could watch them suffer? And you worship this God?

What if he's a masochist?

Nah, i joke. I don't understand how people can live with such unrealistic expectations. everything suffers. its a fact of life. what do you expect?

Steve Wells said...

What if he's a masochist?

I guess you mean sadist, eh Xolotl-Tzin?

Everything suffers because God (if there is one) purposefully designed it that way.

So much for the KFC (Kind, Friendly Creator) theory.

Xolotl-Tzin said...

I guess you mean sadist, eh Xolotl-Tzin?

Nah. this was my bad. by masochist i am referring to the guy who said God made 'em. Not god himself. :)

If you like a sadistic god, you'd have to be a masochist hm?

Steve Wells said...

I'm sorry, but I don't understand you comment, Zolotl-Tzin.

Michael Ejercito said...

So God just felt like creating things just so he could watch them suffer? And you worship this God?

Yes, He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Steve Wells said...

"He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And Lord of the flies.

Jay said...

From a creationist:
To explain why God would allow such a thing, one should look at explanations why it should make ecological sense.
Parasitism and predation create balancing systems. For example if the caterpillar population mushrooms, that makes a happy season for parasitic wasps.
Parasitism and predation are always unhappy events for the victims.

If you are outraged by that, consider making your own natural world without it.

Michael Ejercito said...

Why do people expect that predation is somehow ungodly?

George Dunn said...

Xolotl-Tzin said...
So God just felt like creating things just so he could watch them suffer? And you worship this God?

You have slandered the character of the True God. So NO, we do not worship the idol you have presented.

Xolotl-Tzin said...

I don't worship the Christian god nor believe it exists, George. I think its unrealistic.

I don't have a problem with "sadistic" gods and is not a point of contention for me. Although both Christians and atheists certainly do.

Anonymous said...

I love this post because it deals specifically with one of my favourite topics, Ichneumonidae, and then ties it to the theological challenge raised by parasitism.

However, I caught this little point that bears noting, amending:

"From a letter to Asa Gray, 22 Mary 1860."

Steve Wells said...

Thanks for the correction, caestus. The 22nd of Mary -- must have been an ex-catholic Freudian slip.

Forgiven through Christ said...

Sin is a word we no longer like to use. Sin is to act against God's will. The two great commandments given by Jesus are "Love the Lord with all your heart" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Animals don't sin because they have no knowledge of good and evil, just as a baby cannot sin. Animals simply adapt to their surroundings and follow their God-given instinct to survive.
In Genesis, man began to sin when he ate from the tree of the knowedge of good and evil. I believe this tree is symbolic. As man evolved and became more intelligent, he knew good from evil. Man now sins when he does what he knows is evil. To fail to love God and your fellow man is to sin.

Steve Wells said...

So FTC, what's sin got to do, got to do with it?

Did God create the Ichneumonidae? If so, when, why, and how?

Michael Ejercito said...

Did God create the Ichneumonidae? If so, when, why, and how?
Yes, He created them, and He did so because He felt like it .

What other reason do we need?

Steve Wells said...

Michael Ejercito,
Yes, He created them, and He did so because He felt like it.

Then he is a sadist.

Michael Ejercito said...

He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings; His might maketh right.

lostintravise said...

Great post! This quote by Darwin is one of my favorite quotes both biologically and religiously. It was one of the first things that got me interested in parasites (which I am hoping to study for the rest of my life)!

To the religious part of the quote there is no justification for it! On the intelligent design facet there is no way you can salvage a loving, caring god from one who designs things like ichneumon wasps or fluke worms. And, to the people who say that god simply set up laws and let things run (the deists), what is even the point in believing in a god if you've stripped "god" down to such a pathetic, pointless entity?

Michael Ejercito said...

God's justification is the virtue of His station as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Xolotl-Tzin said...

What if this is God's sick sense of humor? I'd prefer to see it as nature's myself.

Raz said...

Highly biased and one sided argument of course.It is one I would agree is difficult to tie up with belief in God. Charles Darwin stated many things however, and just one is being quoted here to suit the argument.Darwin was for most of his life a Christian. Many think that evolution and belief in God is contradictory, for instance. Darwin said "It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be both an ardent theist and evolutionist". Darwin's quotes are plentiful, on both sides of the argument.

Raz said...

Very selective about the Darwin comments I see. Darwin's comments are plentiful, and are on both sides of the argument in truth. He was in fact a Christian for most of his life, then had doubts caused by his theory of evolution by natural selection. He did not propose evolution as this theory had been established previously, but proposed that it was by natural selection. Is is believed from some sources that he resorted to his faith again. Whether that is believed may again be down to your bias, as there are arguments for and against this.

Thanks, but no thanks said...

My goodness. What food for thought. I have not believed in a God ever since science began making too much sense to me. But as several creationists have argued here, the existence of parasitoid creatures such as the Ichneumonid wasp does not preclude the notion of an all-powerful God.

It does, however, erase any notion of a loving, forgiving God. And I cannot fathom why anyone would worship a deity which has no love for its creations.

Well done, creationists, for successfully convincing me that a God may indeed exist. But I could never, ever worship such a cruel deity. Indeed, I don't know how any rational person could.

Thanks, but no thanks said...


Very selective about the Darwin comments I see.

Yes, you are probably right. But people are people, and most arguments are delivered using selective information. That includes most arguments in favour of a God, as well as most of those not in favour.

At the end of the day, belief in God is incumbent upon faith, and nothing more. There is no proof, nor even any overwhelming evidence. Just faith.

There is, however, no doubt that the Ichneumonid wasp exists.

Michael Ejercito said...

I can explain why someone would worship God.

God is the personification of Absolute, Untrammeled Power, the Power to define reality itself. He has the power to cast His enemies into an inescapable, everlasting torture chamber where they will be tormented in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, the smoke of their torment will arise forever and ever, and they shall have no rest day nor night. We can not cast Him into an inescapable, everlasting torture chamber, stop Him from casting anyone else there, or rescue anyone from there. His might makes right.

Insectman said...

One excuse is as good as another to avoid facing the facts of the Creator.

Here is a science piece though: http://www.imperial.ac.uk/college.asp?P=2753

Anonymous said...

A believer would say those are soul-less insects, so the example is meaningless. Just be grateful to God that he did not create heron-sized Ichneumons to parasitize humans. (Of course he did create other horrible human parasites like schistosomas, so maybe he is a sadist!)

Anonymous said...

The atheist comedy show.

"Yeah, they're pretty cool, aren't they? I've never seen one oviposit before, but it is one of my goals in life. I understand, though, that they are pretty vulnerable at that time and can't just fly away when their ovipositor is stuck a cm or so into tree bark. Here's what Borror and Delong's Study of Insects says about it."

So if God made it and everything went pear shaped as God predicted that it would if Adam, the first man, disobeyed Him, then why, all of a sudden, is it "cool" that YOUR 'god', namely, 'evolution' can be a cruel and merciless, but you do not criticise 'him' one iota, but instead you are subservient to and actually bless this pagan god of yours?

Can you not see your own blind subservience to your pagan god, while you, at the same time, hypocritically point the finger at those who believe in the Biblical Creator of heaven and earth?

And you jokers call US crazy. What a laugh.